This is a common fear among children, and frequently one of the most intense, capable of inducing screams or bringing kids to a hysterical state of panic.
Why children are afraid of people in costumes
There are several reasons that a child may fear clowns, mascots, or other people in costumes:
- When someone is in a mask or heavy makeup, it obscures their facial expressions, which is something children rely on to judge a person’s intent and determine whether they are mean or friendly. With these cues hidden, it causes anxiety.
- The behavior of these entities themselves might be unsettling. Clowns and mascots often have strange body movements, they look kooky, and many make loud, crazy noises. To a child, this can make their intent even more difficult to predict, and leave them feeling scared and helpless. Kids don’t like being around people or things whose behavior is unpredictable. This is especially true of shy, introverted children.
- Masks and the like intentionally distort a person’s facial features, and children often have an inherent fear of disfigurations. It triggers anxiety about their own body autonomy. Small children are often magical thinkers who cannot separate the mask from the person behind it. When dad puts on a mask, he instantly transmorphs into that character in the eyes of a small child. This is why babies especially dislike it when their parents put on a mask.
- These creatures don’t look human, but yet resemble human features just enough that they trigger what psychologists refer to as the ‘uncanny valley effect.’ In other words, they’re creepy. Most people, children included, are okay with cartoons and robots that look like obvious cartoons. But if a robot gets to look too human but not quite human enough, it seems to trigger these unsettling feelings.
- People in masks or animal costumes represent a departure from what children are used to in the real world. It’s not everyday they’re asked to go sit on the lap of an 8-foot tall bunny. It takes time for kids to build up trust that these creatures are in fact friendly, which is why your 8-year-old may go up and squeeze a mascot’s nose and feel completely safe in that action, but your 3-year-old may start screaming bloody murder when it comes within 10 feet.
Dealing with a child’s fear of people in costumes
- Recognize that when it comes to extremely young children (1-, 2- and 3-year-olds) these fears may be impossible to overcome until their mind develops a firmer grasp on people-permanency and other principles of reality. This typically occurs between the ages of two and three, but some kids who are especially prone to magical thinking may take longer to become convinced of these concepts. So be patient.
- If you’re going to a circus or another event where there are likely to be clowns and other mascots, warn your children about what to expect ahead of time. Children often handle anxiety better when they have time to prepare themselves. Come up with a plan together for what kids can do if they get scared, such as holding your hand or hiding their face in your shirt. Bringing along a small blanket that they can pull over their heads also comforts some children.
Helping kids overcome their fear of clowns, mascots, or people in costumes
Repeatedly showing children who is under a mask by sliding it on and off is your first recourse, but this often fails to do the trick. Here are some suggestions that can help tackle those especially stubborn cases:
- If your child is especially terrified, introduce the concept through pictures at first. Take photos of yourself or your spouse or big brother or sister in various stages of dress up, with masks on, off, and partially removed. Also go to the library and see what books you can find about people in costume.
- Engage in makeup play. Makeup can change facial appearances, but it’s also less intense and obstructive than a mask, so it makes a great stepping stone in getting kids accustomed to costumes. Gather a variety of face paints and/or lipsticks and facial powders and sit in front of a large mirror. Go back and forth with your child decorating each other’s faces; your child doing your face and you doing theirs. After each step, look at yourselves in the mirror before adding more. Assuming they’re comfortable, begin to add props that change facial features further: Funny hats, sunglasses, wigs, even stickers or clown noses. Your child should really enjoy this activity, and it gets them accustomed to the idea of people in costumes under circumstances where they are in control.
- Move on to letting them do exploratory play with masks and mirrors. Collect a variety of glasses, wigs, masks, and other costumes, and dress each other up. Take pictures of your dress up that they can look at later.
- If your child is deathly terrified of people in costumes, this also presents a safety hazard, since kids who are afraid of firefighters sometimes die when they are hiding under a bed, terrified of the person trying to rescue them. So be sure to address fears about firefighters as part of this effort to overcome their anxiety.